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Friday, June 13, 2014

St. Anthony of Padua....

is a very special saint to me. More times than I can count, I’ve been in sticky situations involving lost stuff, a sweater, a bracelet, a book, a Microsoft document seemingly swallowed into the cyber abyss… name it! And each time, I have instinctively pleaded, “St. Anthony….HELP!!!!!”

    Most of the time, I’ve recovered “what once was mine”. But that’s really beside the point. The main gift that St. Anthony gives to us scatter-brained earthlings is peace in the midst of panic. For that, he has become one of the favorite “go-to” saints of the Catholic World. But there is so much more to the man and the saint than this.

    Born in 1195 A.D. and baptized Fernando, the future Anthony was a native of Lisbon, Portugal and his parents were pillars of the community. At age 15, he entered an Augustinian religious community but found it far too busy and worldly for his tastes. Instead of political debates with his old chums who clustered around the priory, Fernando sought deeper solitude to pray and study.

     He was eventually sent to Coimbra and immersed himself in nine years of intense theological study and was probably ordained a priest during that time. But then a passionate inspiration took hold of the young man that would change his life forever. The bodies of five martyred Franciscan monks who had been martyred for preaching to Christian Faith to Muslims in Morocco were brought to his monastery.

    On fire for the faith and hoping to follow their example, Fernando abandoned his studies as an Augustine, tromped over to a small Franciscan Friary, and announced, “Brother, I would gladly put on the habit of your Order if you would promise to send me as soon as possible to the land of the Saracens, that I may gain the crown of the holy martyrs.”

    After some initial struggles with his Augustinian superiors, Fernando was allowed to don the habit of the Franciscans and take a new name: Anthony. True to their word, the Franciscans agreed to send the eager-beaver young priest on a mission to Morocco. But God would have other plans for him. He fell ill on the ocean, and was forced to begin the long voyage home. However, a terrific storm blew his ship to Italy instead of his native Portugal. Landing in Sicily, he was taken in by a local Franciscan community who nursed him back to health.  

    Although rather depressed about the outcome of his missionary endeavors, Anthony got his wish for solitude in the monastery of Montepaelo in Northern Italy. He may have remained unknown to the world there if not for a random happening that exposed his gift as a preacher. One evening, after an ordination of Dominicans and Franciscans, once of the provincials asked for a friar to volunteer to give an impromptu sermon. Everyone, including Anthony, tried to get out of the assignment, until he was “drafted” to do so.

    Brilliantly yet without any airs, Anthony stunned the assembly with his wisdom, passion, and oratorical abilities. They had all known he was pious and excelled in his spiritual exercises, but this was something new and different. Such a light could not be kept under a bushel. Soon enough, St. Francis heard about the Portuguese friar with the gold tongue and assigned him to preach to the people of Northern Italy. His days of privacy were at an end.

    Anthony was determined to put his missionary zeal into practice by living the Gospel example of poverty and humility. In contrast to many of his contemporaries who held themselves above the common people, Anthony determined to reach out to the men and women on the street, showing genuine love and piety to those who were used to encountering snobbish religiosity.

  He also made it a point to travel through city in both Italy and France that were under the sway of heresies to try to win the people back to the faith. Nevertheless, he always used a positive approach instead of small-minded bickering, realizing it was often better to simply present the beauty of Christ and His Church as opposed to trying to disparage someone else’s argument directly.

    Although St. Francis initially watched Anthony with a cautious eye, concerned that he might let his knowledge go to his head, he eventually commissioned him to teach the friars theology. His first “post” was the friary at Bologna. Although none of the records his theological conferences survive, two volumes of his sermons do, and they clearly reveal his imaginative method of preaching, using allegory and symbolism to explain the Scriptures.

    Over the years, Anthony excelled in the ranks, becoming provincial superior of the Franciscans in Northern Italy and preaching in front of St. Francis’s dear friend, Pope Gregory IX. Still, he never let this prestige go to his head and always remained very much a preacher of the people. His headquarters was Padua, not far from Venice, earning him the title “Anthony of Padua.”

    Legends about St. Anthony abound. One of them has to do with how he became patron of lost articles. So the story goes, Anthony had a Book of Psalms that was one of his prized possessions, filled with notes he used to teach his fellow friars. One young novice, growing sick of the rigors of religious life, decided to go AWOL…and took Anthony’s Psalter with him! Desperate, Anthony fell on his knees and begged God to have the book returned to him, and that the robber would find his way back home. Sure enough, the novice was overcome with guilt, returning the book and returning to religious life.

    Another story tells of a woman whose child drowned. Begging the intercession of the now deceased Anthony, she promised that if her child were restored to life, she would give as much corn as the child’s weight to the poor. The child was indeed brought back to life. This concept of corn began the tradition of “St. Anthony Bread”, special bread blessed on the saint’s feast on July 13 and kept to bless the home with bounty.

    Once, when people refused to listen to Anthony preaching because they wanted nothing more to do with religion, he made a point to go out to the seashore and preach to the fish. Inspired, they leapt out of the water, and this definitively got the people’s attention. Anthony seemed to always have an affinity with the sea, and later on was made patron of seamen and travelers of every sort. Multiple miracles involve him calming storms, and he is also acknowledged as the saint who will help guide letters to their destinations. These combined tales brought about the tradition of drawing a fish on the back of envelopes and writing “S.A.G.” within it, standing for “Saint Anthony Guide.”

   It is also said St. Anthony had visions of the Christ Child and holding the small, vulnerable toddler in his arms. It was during one of these late night visitations that the Lord of Chatenaneuf entered the chapel unexpectedly. Amazed by the building bathed in light and the child in Anthony’s arms, he had to be calmed down and held to secrecy until after Anthony’s death. His death came in 1231, when he was only 36 years old. He spent his final day singing praises to the Lord and receiving the Last Sacraments of the Church. Towards the end, one of his followers asked him why he was staring upwards so intently. “I see my Lord!” Anthony responded, and his spirit left him. He is now a Doctor of the Church, and his tongue and vocal chords remain incorrupt to this day.

    Saint Anthony is so many things for so many people. He was a fiery young man, sometimes impulsive and definitely a romanticist. But he balanced this side of his personality with a deep thirst for learning and preaching, willing to alter his own intentions as providence altered his plans. Nevertheless, he always remained true to his calling as a missionary who used to voice to call the whole world to a deeper relationship with God and to sing his praises. In addition to calling on his help when we lose the car keys (which I’m sure he accepts with indulgence and mild amusement), we should also pray to him as we pursue our studies, discern our callings, and present the faith as missionaries to all those we encounter.    

St. Anthony, pray for us! And about those keys.....;-)



  1. Saint Anthony of Padua

    People are always losing things:
    Their keys, their books, their socks, their souls;
    But through the mist a soft bell rings:
    “Home is this way,” it softly, sweetly tolls.

  2. That's beautiful, Mack! Well done!